Friday, September 23, 2011

Bridging the Digital Divide in New York City

"Broadband access is increasingly a requirement of socio-economic inclusion, not an outcome of it."  

The recent announcement of Comcast's Internet Essentials program -- providing low-cost computers, Internet service, and digital literacy training to families who qualify for free lunches at public schools -- started us wondering what affordable options exist for New York City's young people.

The "digital divide" -- discrepancies in who has high speed Internet connections (generally defined as greater than 10 megabit-per-second download capacity) and the knowledge to effectively use digital tools -- remains a significant problem in the United States.  Fast and convenient access to the vast resources of the Internet -- the employment listings and job applications, health information, government benefits, education resources, financial and communication tools, lower cost retail options, up-to-the-minute news, and a thousand other uses -- ease daily tasks and contribute to economic progress. 

Hard numbers on broadband usage in New York City are difficult to find, but the Pew Research Center last year found that nearly 90% of households nationally with earnings of over $75,000 had broadband access in the home, compared to less than 40% of households earning under $30,000.  The situation is especially difficult for minorities, who are statistically more likely to use their cell phones to access the Internet; the devices' small size makes them more suited to entertainment and casual communication than, for example, filling out an online job application.

Comcast's service area does not include New York City, so Gotham residents are not eligible for the Internet Essentials program.  Unfortunately, the city's recently renewed franchise agreement with Time-Warner Cable and Cablevision, which gives the two companies exclusive rights to provide cable service through 2020, does not mandate a subsidized residential service.  It does, however, include an estimated $60 million worth of public benefits such as:

  • Creation of 40 public computing centers across the city to provide free broadband access to low-income communities
  • Free commercial-grade Internet service to all public libraries in Cablevision’s service area
  • Wi-Fi capabilities in 32 parks that includes 30 minutes per month free for all users with a 99 cent per day fee thereafter

Such shared facilities, however, rarely have the capacity to provide extended computer time to each patron, limiting their usefulness.

The NYC Connected Learning project is using over $20 million of federal money to provide computer training, desktop computers, educational software, and free broadband access for one year to more than 18,000 low-income sixth-graders and their families in 100 high-need public middle schools.   Non-profits like CFY and Per Scholas have a primary mission to bring technology to low-income individuals, while scores of other organizations and libraries provide at least some no-cost computer training.  And, of course, TechSoup connects qualified non-profits with technology information and deeply discounted software.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Generation Recession, redux

Our pre-Labor Day post focused on the impact of the current economic malaise on young people.  Now a new study by University of Chicago economist Casey B. Mulligan sheds more light on just how much the youngest workers have suffered (bold added for emphasis):

Using data from the Census Bureau’s Household Survey via the National Bureau of Economic Research, I calculated the average hours worked by age for 2007 (people not working during the week of the survey count as zero hours worked) and then again for 2010. The chart below displays each age group’s percentage change from 2007 to 2010. For example, the chart shows that the average 16-year-old in 2010 worked 40 percent fewer hours than the average 16-year-old did in 2007.

But the chart also shows that labor losses lessen with age and are positive for a number of age groups. In percentage terms, work hours fell the most for teenagers, reflecting the high teenage unemployment rate. After the teenagers, work hours fell the most for the age groups 20 to 29. Work-hours losses for groups in their 30s and 40s ranged 5 to 11 percent. Work hours also fell for age groups 50 to 59, but typically less in percentage terms than for the age groups aged less than 50.

Fewer work hours translates into significant loss of income.  New census data indicates that the earnings of young people have taken the biggest hit of any age group in the downturn, falling over 15% between 2007 to 2010.

Reflecting these woes comes news that the number of Americans living below the poverty line has reached the highest level in the 52 years that the Census Bureau has been collecting information.  (Even these figures may underestimate the true extent of poverty in the US.)  The impact has been felt most by those at the bottom of the economic chain:

“We’re risking a new underclass,” said Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“Young, less-educated adults, mainly men, can’t support their children and form stable families because they are jobless,” he added.

But even the period of economic growth that came before the recession did little for the middle and bottom wage earners.

Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that the period from 2001 to 2007 was the first recovery on record where the level of poverty was deeper, and median income of working-age people was lower, at the end than at the beginning.   

Tough times, indeed, for today's youth.

Friday, September 16, 2011

How will Obama's American Jobs Act impact New York's Youth?

The American Jobs Act that President Obama introduced to Congress on September 8th incorporates a number of provisions that would directly impact New York's youth (PDF).  These include:
  • A $25 billion investment in school infrastructure that will presumably create better learning environments and enhanced student performance in future years. New York will receive $2,020,000,000 in funding to support as many as 26,300 jobs.
  • $5 billion of investments for facilities modernization needs at community colleges, where much of the training for growing occupations takes place. New York could receive $235,300,000 in funding in the next fiscal year for its community colleges.
  • A new Pathways Back to Work Fund to provide hundreds of thousands of low-income youth and adults with opportunities to work and to achieve needed training in growth industries. Pathways Back to Work could place 7,900 adults and 31,600 youths in jobs in New York.

It remains to be seen, of course, how much of Obama's proposal will actually be enacted into law.   (Republicans reception so far has been chilly, and even some Democrats are worrying about the political impact of a large stimulus bill.)

For more information on the impact of the plan, see the official White House page and this Freakonomics quick take.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Raising educational standards: a PISA cake?

The results are in, and they aren't great.  According to the latest PISA exam -- a standardized test administered every three years to representative samples of 15-year-old students from 65 industrialized countries -- the US ranks 32nd in the world in math proficiency, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading comprehension.  (Not all states are created equal, though.  Massachusetts, for one, compares favorably with the top countries in both math and reading ability.)

The importance of these scores goes beyond just bragging rights.  Researchers have found that student performance on international tests like PISA closely reflects long-term economic growth.  Raising US math proficiency to the level of Canada or Korea could result in a $75 trillion increase in national income over the next 80 years.

There are no shortages of ideas on how to "fix" US education.  Below are just a few recent innovative proposals:

  • Most of the emerging, high paying jobs in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) field require a high level of numeracy.  Yet many students find the current rote approach to algebra, trigonometry and calculus dry and confusing.  With this in mind, two eminent mathematicians have called for a whole scale revision in how math is taught in US schools, substituting a “quantitative literacy” curriculum that focuses on real-life problems like finance, data gathering and interpretation, and basic engineering in place of abstract concepts.

  • Recent advances in neuroscience, cognitive science and educational psychology have shed light on how humans synthesize and retain information.  In short, the current approach to teaching -- covering one concept or block of information intensively; testing via quiz or exam to measure understanding; and then moving on to a new concept -- works against how the brain learns. Instead, returning to material multiple times over a semester (“spaced repetition”) and administering multiple tests of the same material (“retrieval practice”) to force the brain to call up information has been shown to drastically enhance long-term retention by 50 percent or more.  

  • Last year, the Freakonomics blog posed an intriguing question: "How Is a Bad Radio Station Like the Public School System?"  Using the analogy of Pandora, the online service that creates customized playlists for each of its millions of users, the authors profiled an innovative demonstration project set up within the New York City Dept. of Education that utilized technology to customize learning to each pupil's strengths, weaknesses and interests.  Throwing out the traditional classroom model of a single teacher instructing 20-30 (or more) children at a time, the "School of One" approach consists mainly of students working individually or in small groups on laptop computers to complete lessons in the form of quizzes, games and worksheets. Each student must take a quiz at the end of each day; the results are fed into a computer program to determine whether they will move on to a new topic the next day.  Multiple teachers monitor the progress, available to help or explain material when needed.  The Spring 2010 pilot program showed "that School of One students learned at a rate 50-60% higher than those in traditional classrooms.  The effects were positive for all subgroups, but most pronounced for the two lowest-performing quartiles of students."  (Curiously, there is little evidence that the introduction of technology into traditional classroom boosts student outcomes.)  The program has been so successful that its founder, Joel Rose, left the NYC public school system in March 2011 to launch an independent effort to take the School of One concept to scale.

Taken together, these and other reforms hold the promise making the classroom more relevant and enjoyable for students, more effective for teachers, and ultimately of creating the highly educated citizenry that America needs in order to compete in the 21st century. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Whither (Wither?) American Manufacturing

Is American manufacturing dying or thriving?  

In 1970, 30 percent of American workers spent their days in factories; today, that figure is 12 percent and dropping.  Many of the jobs that paid high wages to those with a high school diploma (or less) have disappeared, with workers scrambling to find lower paying work elsewhere.   Commentators and politicians routinely dismiss manufacturing as an important part of the economy. 

And yet the value of the products from the factories that remain is reaching record highs of nearly $2 trillion annually -- roughly equal to the output of China's factories.

So what's going on?

The plight of American manufacturing has been well told.  As the only industrialized country to emerge from World War II with its factories and infrastructure intact, the US reigned supreme for more than a quarter century as supplier to the world.  This dominance created the middle class and provided a standard of living that became the envy of the world.  Over time, however, European and Asian countries rebuilt, enacted policies to support key industries, adopted innovative production practices, and proved that they could make comparable -- and often superior -- products for less.  The emergence of China onto the international scene in the late 1980s offered a low wage workforce that proved irresistible for low skill manufacturing, while a succession of free trade agreements encouraged the shifting of production out of the US.  Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, industries that once anchored entire regions either disappeared (textiles, consumer electronics) or diminished (furniture, autos) in the face of international competition.

But outsourcing does not explain the whole story.

Technology has reshaped the face of manufacturing worldwide.  With much of the assembly line now automated, factories simply need far fewer workers than in the past.  No one is immune from the march of technology, even in low wage countries.  The Chinese company Foxconn, for example, employs over one million people to make electronics like the Apple iPhone and HP computers.  It recently announced plans to replace much of its labor force with more than a million robots over the next two years -- and this in a country where the average factory worker earns less than $1.50 per hour.

America has also been slow in enacting an official industrial policy.  European and Asian governments routinely subsidize and protect specific industries considered vital to their national interests.  While the Obama administration has been more proactive than most -- propping up the "Big Three" automakers in 2009 to save more than one million jobs, investing in solar power and advanced batteries for electric cars -- its efforts in manufacturing pale in comparison to the nearly $13 trillion bailout of the banking industry that has done little to create new jobs.

Why does it matter if manufacturing disappears?

  • In the 21st century's hyper-competitive marketplace, success increasingly depends on ability to innovate.  With the loss of factories, we also lose the process engineering facilities that rely on proximity to the assembly line.
  • As the Harvard Business Review has noted (PDF), the loss of factories in America has a multiplier effect.  The Amazon Kindle, for example, could not currently be made in the United States even if Amazon wanted to, as the manufacture of all of the component parts -- and related expertise -- has migrated to Asia.  Without a robust "industrial commons," American manufacturers are hampered in their ability to bring new products to market.
  • While technology has reduced the total number of workers needed in a factory, it has also created demand for highly trained workers who can operate and maintain precision machinery.  Manufacturing has been one of the few bright spots in the American economy recently, adding nearly 250,000 new jobs since 2009.  Many manufacturers in fact complain of unfilled openings due a shortage of applicants who are good at math, good with their hands and willing to work on a factory floor; the lack of skilled labor is expected to cost manufacturers billions of dollars over the next few years.
  • Because of the higher skills demanded in today's factories, workers with a high school diploma and some advanced training can earn solidly middle-class wages in manufacturing.  Few other sectors offer the same types of opportunities for high school graduates.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Monday's Resources: New youth practitioner guides from WPTI!

Welcome to a Tuesday edition of "Monday's Resources"!  We hope you enjoyed the long weekend.

Since our pre-Labor Day posting was a bit of a downer, we wanted to start the week with some valuable resources for anyone who prepares young people for the world of employment. 

Our friends at Workforce Professionals Training Institute have recently gathered many of the best practices from its exceptional professional development workshops into a series of free guides for youth workers. 


Friday, September 2, 2011

The rise of Generation Recession

As we prepare for the Labor Day weekend, it's worth remembering that many young people have little labor to celebrate this year.   

The Washington Post recently noted that "recession is the new normal" for millions Americans.  The average length of unemployment now tops 40 weeks -- the longest period ever recorded -- and more than a million job seekers have given up on looking for work entirely.  A record number of people exist on the fringes of the workforce: part-timers looking for more hours and the self-employed eager for more work.

The figures above include workers of all ages.  Unfortunately, the pain has been felt the most by young people.  Consider the following statistics:

  • Since the start of the downturn in 2007,  "Generation Recession" -- those born in the late 80s and 90s who came of age as the economy tanked -- has absorbed more than one-third of all job losses, making them the hardest hit age group.  
  • One-in-six young people who are actively seeking work cannot find any.  Many who do have jobs either work fewer hours than desired, or are in positions for which they are overqualified. 
  • More troubling, many have either given up (or never started) looking for work.  Over the past three years, the percentage of 16-24 year olds actually involved in the labor market has fallen to all-time record lows.  Less than half of young people currently hold a job, compared to over 60% of workers over 25.  
  • The numbers are especially grim for African-American (33%) and Latino (43%) youth.       

While those with little education have been hit the hardest, even young people with college degrees are finding the job market a tough nut to crack.  What's more, starting a career in the midst of a recession can have lifelong repercussions.  Studies have shown that workers who joined the labor force in poor economic times will be more risk-adverse in their approach to investment and business creation, and suffer, on average, a decrease in lifetime earnings of over $100,000 and higher risks for depression.

Let's hope that President Obama captures the urgency of this crisis in his upcoming address to Congress, and proposes ambitious solutions that can get American workers -- especially young people -- (back) to work again, so that we can have more to celebrate next Labor Day.